In the Midst of the Myth
Photographs by Marisol Villanueva, courtesy of the Grandmothers Wisdom project
Julia Julieta Casimiro de Pineda, one of the founding members of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers, lives in the foggy and mountainous city of Huautla de Jiménez, in the mythical Mexican state of Oaxaca. She belongs to the Mazatec indigenous people of this region, a culture presently submerged in a mesmerizing contrast of pre-Colombian and Spanish rituals and beliefs. All of Huautla feels like an ongoing ceremony. Every single day I spent in this city, I encountered either a death anniversary, a wedding or the celebration of a particular saint's day. On two consecutive nights, a local band would play until the morning hours, with few interruptions, for a memorial celebration. Daily life in Huautla seems to be ordained by a predetermination that is accepted and executed by all its inhabitants, as if every single action had a higher purpose.
The hearth in mamá Julieta's interior patio is always burning. It is around this homely fire that the family members gather, cook, confer, eat and drink café de olla in unbelievable quantities. At other times, the fire is also the magnet that attracts other family traditions such as gathering honey, candle-making, weaving, and grinding and roasting coffee beans. Like a miniature village, the house offers a space for both social and working activities. The house of mamá Julieta looks inward in a circular motion. The patio works as the centrifuge where sons, daughters, grandsons, and visitors sit and decide the events of the day. Time does not seem to matter much in this household, as each action is pondered on for hours...what should be cooked, who should receive a "trabajo," what event should be attended to or what family problem should be resolved. Their pace is slow and reflexive, as a powerful shaman's family should be.
Mamá Julieta is, first and foremost, a devout woman. Very early in the morning, she will be up before anyone else to begin her prayers. As I sit in the dim light of her living room, I listen to her soft mumbling that randomly shifts from Spanish to Mazateco in a mantra-like shower of blessings. Her requests to the all-powerful Virgen de Guadalupe cover the sick, the unhappy, the financially challenged, and all family members and acquaintances. "I do my work because the Virgin of Guadalupe illuminates it and gives the light of knowledge," mamá Julieta says, "She is really close to me. I feel Her, and She gives me the strength to pray and sing."
A few hours later, the visitors begin to arrive. Mamá Julieta will not turn away anyone who brings something to offer, even if she has no need for their wares. Mexicans, much like the Arabian merchants, are enthusiastic salespersons, as transactions become an opportunity for conversation and intense bargaining. Mamá Julieta's home suddenly becomes a small-scale "mercado," where "tamales," "atole" and flowers are sold, not out of a consumption frenzy, but because this is one of mamá Julieta's many ways of helping those in need.
Local people are not the only visitors that mamá Julieta and her family welcome to their home. Foreigners are also an important component of the family's prestige as healers. Mamá Julieta remembers: "My work began in earnest with foreigners, from Europe or the United States, people from Mexico City or other states in the Republic of Mexico. In 1968, huge numbers of people came. At that time, no one liked foreigners, whether from other countries or other parts of Mexico. Strangers were not welcome; they were all hippies with their slogans of peace and love; they were poor. Yes, you felt bad when you saw how they were treated; this was the start of the waves of people searching for one or another alternative way of perceiving reality. It's with these people that I began working steadily with my husband, working secretly in fact, because it was frowned on to give niños santos to foreigners. That is, we worked against our culture and ran the risk that comes with opening your doors to those who don't belong to your culture." So it's not strange to find a Dutch yoga teacher conversing with a "Chilango" (native of Mexico City) historian in the Pineda-Casimiros' patio. They all make the pilgrimage to Huautla in order to meet mamá Julieta and expose themselves to her knowledge and power.
My experience while visiting with mamá Julieta a particularly favorite church of hers, was truly moving and profound. Her devotion envelops her in a halo of compassion for all sentient beings and as I sat beside her on the church bench, I could not help feeling a sense of spiritual protection in her presence. While her hypnotic prayers lulled us, flowers were offered, candles were lit, and copal was burnt. Religion and shamanism are inseparable in mamá Julieta's world. Jesus Christ, la Virgen de Guadalupe, and all Catholic saints, share their godly powers with "los niños santos" (the holy children), "los duendes" (the elves) and "el Señor de los Cerros" (the Master of the Hills). "The work I do is good; I always invoke God and the earth, the rivers, the mountains -- and of course the angels and saints -- with songs and prayers in my maternal language, Mazatec, as well as Spanish, also with my thoughts, my feelings, and my desires. That's how I do good."
A fascinating syncretism exists between the ancient Mazatec culture and the religious imports from colonial times. In every ritual, there will inevitably coexist both Catholic and indigenous elements. During our visit to another church, la Capilla de la Virgen de los Remedios (the Chapel of the Virgin of Remedies), all visitors were purified in front of the altar with copal, herbs, water and candles by a well-known "curandero," something unheard of in the Catholic Church.
The peak of my experience inside mama Julieta's realm was the ritual of the teonanácatl -- the "holy children" -- the sacred mushrooms. "Because we don't have money for doctors, we heal ourselves with the mushrooms," mamá Julieta explains, "It is believed that God gave the mushrooms to the peasants and to those who could not read in order for them to be able to have a direct experience of Him." The powerful aura of the "niños sagrados" is carefully guarded by the whole family. There are infinite details concerning the gathering, handling and administration of the mushrooms; the Pineda-Casimiros are religiously respectful when sharing information about their "sacred medicine."
In a special room dedicated for this purpose, mamá Julieta administers the "trabajos" (works) that utilize the sacred mushrooms to cure physical and psychological illnesses. Mamá Julieta describes it thus: "A sacred space is built, a sacred time that is totally specific to the ceremony, and that turns into the setting where the ritual with the mushrooms is carried out. This space and sacred time is directed by very pleasant sensations transmitted by the song and prayers of those who run the ceremony. The guide should offer a genuine security, trust, affection, love, and acceptance, because this is the most important moment and the patient must benefit from it. It's the moment when the spirit finds itself at the highest point; it's the moment of encounter with God. A ceremony with a good ritual eases the relationship between man and God; God manifests himself, he proves his existence, helps the transformation, makes us aware, and leads us to reflect deeply on who we are and what we want. This is when it is extremely important that the guide be present, paying attention to all that's happening, and prepared to use each and every tool."
Out of respect for the privacy of this ritual, I can only say that mamá Julieta accompanied me throughout the whole duration of my altered state and her presence became the guiding voice and spirit of the insightful curandera that she is.
"My work has harvested souls, a great achievement for humankind, for all of us who believe that things in the world can be better, if we attempt at every moment to do things well: to show respect, to value what has little value today, to feel proud of our identity, to defend our traditions, to defend our traditional medicine, to love and respect our elders and listen to them with great attention, to teach children to live with respect, peace, and love. The mission of all human beings who achieve consciousness is to take care of themselves and Mother Earth."
Joanna Cartagena is a Project Collaborator of the Grandmothers Wisdom project. Born and raised in Puerto Rico. She has a BA and a MA in Comparative Literature. As a student, Joanna lived in big cities like Mexico City, Paris, Madrid and New York. On her return to the Island, she dedicated twenty years to her family's business. Presently, she has a ceramic workshop, an organic garden and acts as volunteer in different artistic endeavors for individuals and organizations.
Marisol Villanueva has a BA in Visual Arts/Communications and a BFA in Fine Art. Since the mid-1990s, Marisol's work has been dedicated to photographing indigenous people, their threatened ways of life, and their endangered habitats - often in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution. The opportunity of traveling to remote and pristine places where nature has been unaltered for millennia has awakened her to the spiritual beauty in nature.
In 2003, Marisol began to assist the Center for Sacred Studies in the organization of the first gathering of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers in Phoenicia, New York. In 2004, she became the Still Photographer of the Thirteen Grandmothers film For the Next Seven Generations and is currently the Official Photographer of the Thirteen Grandmothers Council and their Photo Archivist. In 2010, Marisol began a multimedia project about the Thirteen Grandmothers titled Grandmothers Wisdom: Reverence For All Creation. For more information please visit www.macreativeinc.com.